MORGANTOWN - The names may be different, but fans can expect the West Virginia University defense to play at the same high level as it prepares for the upcoming season.
"We had seven very good players who left the team," explained junior defensive back Pat Miller. "But, you also have seven young players who can make plays and are ready to make plays."
Gone are linemen Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, linebackers Anthony Leonard, Pat Lazear and J.T. Thomas and defensive backs Brandon Hogan and Sidney Glover. Add to that list the name of Robert Sands, who elected to leave early for the NFL draft later this month, and it is easy to understand why defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his staff have been spending extra time searching for players to feel those shoes.
West Virginia senior Bruce Irvin (11) will be one of the players expected to lead the Mountaineers’ defense this season. The junior college transfer led the team with 14 sacks last season. (Photo by Jim Butta)
"We have a lot of guys who are hungry to get out there and make a name for themselves," added Miller, who took over for Hogan when the senior injured a knee in the win over Pittsburgh.
One of those will be Atlanta native Bruce Irvin, who led the team with 14 sacks during his first season with the Mountaineers after coming to Morgantown from Mt. San Antonio Community College.
"The aggression is the same and my responsibilities are all the same, but I'm more than just a third-down player this year," said Irvin.
Also back will be senior defensive end Julian Miller, who has started at the position for the past two seasons-climbing to the No. 4 slot on the school's career sack list with 21.5.
"Julian has always been a great help to me and shown me the ropes of being a defensive end here at West Virginia," continued Irvin. "He's a smart player and very helpful."
The question mark, up front at least, surrounds the replacement for Neild, who was an all-Big East performer last season.
Jorge Wright (6-2, 264) and Josh Taylor (6-1, 278) appear to be the leading candidates for the job, but don't count out redshirt freshman Trevor Demko (6-6, 245) or junior college transfer Shaq Rowell (6-4, 304), who still is finishing up his work at Iowa Western and hopes to join the program this summer.
Linebacker could be another story.
Senior Najee Goode returns after recording 47 stops a year ago, but the rest of the unit will be greener than the artificial surface at Mountaineer Field.
Sophomore Branko Busick and freshman Jewane Snow head into spring drills locked in a battle for the starting job at middle linebacker in WVU's 3-3-5 alignment while Goode will either see action at the Sam or Will side slot.
If Goode lines up at Sam, look for senior Casey Vance or junior Josh Francis to see action at the other position. However, should Goode play on the Will side, then look for sophomores Doug Rigg and Tyler Anderson as well as junior Donovan Miles to fill the other position.
Just like up front, a junior college transfer could break into the starting lineup as Lackawanna Community College's Josh Francis (6-2, 215) enrolled for January classes so that he could participate in spring drills with the hope of securing one of those starting slots.
The secondary, while missing Hogan, Glover and Sands, brings back the most experience with Miller and senior Keith Tandy at the corners and junior Terrance Garvin at strong safety.
Senior Eain Smith and sophomore Darwin Cook top the depth chart at the other two safety slots heading into the spring while senior Brantwon Bowser, junior Lawrence Smith, sophomores Mike Dorsey, Travis Bell and Brodrick Jenkins and freshmen Avery Williams, Qudral Forte, Wes Tonkery, Lucas Henn, Ishmael Banks and Vance Roberts give the Mountaineers a ton of talent in the secondary.
"We know what we have ahead of us," said Miller. "But, a lot of us have been waiting for this moment and I think fans are going to be surprised at how good we are going to be this season."